Thursday, October 2, 2008



Oh, this is not a funny story, nor is it particularly light and airy. Nor is it short. So, read when you're ready. This is one of those emotional, personal, life kind of stories. The story, I believe, has a solid flow and is not told poorly. It might even be well written.To be honest, I quite like it. But… you are a committed reader, or a benevolent reader at the least, so I feel it honest to warn you. Don't worry though, I've got a stock of good funnies coming up in the journal rotation, including a cop story and a spilled popcorn story. So, get some coffee and dive right in… or come back later, when it's raining, and the power's out... or wait for the funny ones.

     My next story is of a student. I fine young lad, who will be successful. His name is Matilda, at least it is here, in this story. I couldn't actually use this real name, and using a masculine name would be too close to the truth, so close I dare not even venture a mock boy's name. Because of this Matilda is a code name. It's top secret. Please tell no one. Not even yourself. You are suspect. Also… Please understand, I am terrible with verbatim memorization. And this story recreates dialogue, a story format that uh, necessitates verbatimism. I'm sorry. All you'll get here is good-enoughism and that'saboutrightism. To me, Shakespeare could just as easily have written the following: "Hey Juliet! Where'd you go?" "I'm over here by the jealous moon." "Oh you sexy vixen… can I come up? I've got a pizza." I assure you the emotion and intentions are real. The names have been changed to protect the innocent and the words have been changed, because, just because.

::Of Matilda::
Matilda is a man, a young man, a little misdirected in earnest efforts. I know this because this describes my youth exactly. I am happy to be teaching because it produces many opportunities. One opportunity is to be bigger or more than I was the day before. In what my be at first random, I've been wondering lately about a certain phrase that pops into my head: Integrity without Compassion is Fascism. It is a bold statement, very black and white, no wiggle room, and perhaps without compassion. Nonetheless it is a concept that's been invading my mind for weeks. It is this reminder that keeps me from yelling at privileged, under-age Neanderthals in my classes when they act like extreme blockheads. I'll bet you money that you've experienced someone so stuck to rules and process that even minor deviations are met with great and swift repercussions. I connect this idea with a short conversation I had with Matilda last week, and in this connection I am only vaguely aware of the connections whose existence I pondered upon only sentences ago.

Matilda is a student like many others. He shows up late. He is talented and kind. His work suffers because of forgetfulness or priorities placed elsewhere. This forgetfulness and else-placed prioritization is, of course, accompanied by apologies, sullen looks and slouchy head, as a dog knows he's wrong in chewing but chews regardless. In essence, Matilda is guilty of youthful numbskullery. Bless his heart for yearning and searching for answers to questions he may not even be aware he's asking. Matilda is better than his performance. Many times I wanted to tell him this, to lay the heavy hand of tough Love on his metaphorical backside and lay a spin of bruises that would whip him into shape. This is a dramatic tactic and, I've found, is best saved for last case scenarios. Besides, artists respond easier to lighter touches, as a blade of grass may eventually break a foundation but a swift punch may leave a brick laughing. Matilda is struggling with something and I believe, upon further reflection, he is struggling to find his place in the world. He wants to be bigger than he is. Bless his heart for taking on the struggle of growth. It is a choice and I applaud it. The rest of this paragraph was to be filled with a short history of me, as a student. I depart from this paragraph with this thought. I know Matilda now because I know myself from before. I see in him nothing I haven't seen in myself. Sometimes it is impossible to see someone else if you don't see yourself there first.

::To Avoid Hypocrisy::
After multiple irritations, of tardiness and absent work, I ask to see him after class.
"Am I in trouble Mr. Britton?" Mister Britton… I love it.
"Yeah. I thought so." We walked to my office, perhaps 40 feet down sterile walls, past vending machines on the left, reception on the right, through a keycard door and into my shared grad t/a office. I want him to perform well in my class and because he's under achieving it felt very natural to give him the riot act, make myself an example of what happens when you try a little bit. But, I could never have pulled that off with a straight face. Me? a good student? preaching to someone else about being a poor student? Yeah... I am the black kettle.

"So, what's up man?" says Mr. Britton (that's me).
"Well, you know, I've got a lot of classes, my 253 and 209 classes are killing me. I haven't slept in like days. You know how it is."
"Hmmm. I hear ya..." Processing... thinking... Something's missing...
"But what's up? You've missed a few classes, missed a few assignments, you've expressed a lazy interest in just passing the course... what's up?"
He half-heartedly back-pedals regarding previous remarks. It is important to maintain calmness when someone displays weakness or vulnerability. These are sensitive seconds and minutes. Credibility is made by inches, or destroyed by miles. For a sentence, he explains that it is not as I had heard. Cool. And then, because the mood was right, the planets aligned, or someone on Main street wore purple, I went right to the heart of the problem. Without duress, but instead with care and concern... "You know, your arrogance is getting in your way. I know you. I know how you work. You are very smart. You are, well, smarter than most people around you."
"Well, that's what I like to tell myself anyway." His slightly confident shrug, hides and shows a stronger belief in his intelligence than the passing acceptance of this last shrug's performance.
"Well, you are and you know it. That's the problem." And, truly he is.
Silence. A serious demeanor falls. The cloudy, overcast look of someone lost in thought, searching the floor, thinking through forced sighs. A head nod, as if coming to believe what is happening. He looks up, at me.
"Wow... we just met and you already saw that. Only one other person has and that was last semester. And she's known me for a while longer." I pass over the chance to gloat. That will come later… like in this story.
"Yeah. You are, and the problem here is that your behavior here is keeping you from what you really want. You are getting in the way of yourself. You keep yourself from the goals in Life that you want because of this behavior. You are going to be successful. I've been teaching for enough years to know who will be. You have all the makings. You are more sociable than your peers. You're smarter. But you've got this thing in your way, that's holding you back, and right now it's pretty big."
Again silence, processing, the wheels of the hamster cage turn faster, the sugar burns hotter, the blinky lights inside his brain blink faster. Matilda turns to me again.
"I'm gonna tell you something I've told no one else, something that my friends don't even know." And he did. He told me. He believes his nasty secret is nasty. And it is nasty, because he never let it out. The secret he told me, not at all nasty, not surprising, not alarming, was not worth remembering save that he told me in confidence. The guilt and shame… that's the nasty part. But in our meeting, he let it out. He let his nasty secret breath a little fresh air, and the nastiness died a little bit.
"Well, the first place you might want to look is at forgiving yourself."
"But I can't."
"I know. You're not supposed to know how yet. If you did, we wouldn't be here…Come and visit me again if you still can't figure out how."
His chin has started quivering. It vibrated near furiously as a leaf on a stormy tree. He looked down, arms folded, held close. Then he looked up and stared at the ceiling. He is brave because he is feeling.  "…But you do that, and you can move forward. You'll take time and figure it out."
He looks me in the eye, his eyes doughy, soft, guilty and alive. "So now what?"
"Well, you have a habit that's getting in your way. We've gotta work on that." Though I can't remember, and I think it's important, if I said "we've" or "you've."
"Okay. I promise I'll do better."
"No. Don't promise me that. Don't make me any promises you can't keep right now. You have an old habit of arrogance. It won't go away so quickly."
"Well what do I do?"
"First, you take a look at it. You watch it. You watch where it impacts you. You watch where it shows up. Record and observe how it controls your decisions. First you do that."

::Pyrrhic Memories::
From the well of memories of bittersweet accomplishments, Pyrrhic victories, and losses, I made a guarantee to my friend.
"As per your arrogance, I guarantee that humility will be your best friend. Your arrogance tells you that you are the best and because you think you are the best, you don't try, don't excel. Humility will always remind you that someone else may be better, that there is always room to grow. When someone is better than you: admire their work and ask how they did it. Be humble and you will be great."
"Do you really think so?"
"I make you this promise because it is how I grow, because I had to find it myself."

Men are not typically the type to burst into tears in front of another of the same gender. We don't need to be. It can be said that we're out of touch emotionally, that we're stoic. But I think we have a limbic understanding of each other. This meeting was no different. Matilda pulled himself together. Thanked me for my time, asked a few questions about class, renewed himself with vigor and lightness, shook my hand – twice – and then walked out into the world of his business.

It is a story of personal penitence because my childhood is filled with comedic, and tragic, memories of selling myself short, especially in the area of academia.